Business Musings: The Toll (2020 in Review)

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In late December and early January, I have made it a practice here on this website to review the year that has just ended. I truly debated whether or not I wanted to review 2020. It’s an awful year, catastrophic for some and just plain terrible for others. Some have had a few uplifting things happen, but for the most part, people worldwide have merely trudged through the days, trying to get to the other side.

The fact that the other side is on the horizon now that we have vaccines made writing these posts easier. But they’re not easy. And I have done what I usually do: I’ve focused these posts on the publishing industry, both indie and traditional.

There’s been some bright spots in the industry, particularly concerning the rise in audio and ebook sales. But, for the most part, 2020 has been just plain wretched.

In the first post in this series, I used the term “wreckage” to describe what’s been going on worldwide. I used the metaphor of someone clawing her way out of the rubble to see what remained of her world, only to find devastation as far as the eye could see.

In the last several posts, I’ve explored what publishing looks like in this devastated world. But I really haven’t looked at the entire picture. Because, try as I might, I can’t divorce what we see all around us from what’s going on in publishing—because a lot of what’s beneath the surface will claw its own way to the top in 2021 and 2022 and beyond.

When I go on my walks around the neighborhood, I often pass what was Las Vegas High School (which is now an arts’ school). Outside, there’s a cool display of all of the class logos, beginning in the 1930s. The logos, designed by students, are sometimes bad, sometimes breathtaking, and often instructive.

For example, the classes of 1942 through 1945 have plain logos, remembering the fallen. That’s pretty much all. Just a reminder—a four-year hole in the joy of graduation, because the graduating students went to war, and many did not come home.

We will see a similar hole in the early 2020s, especially in the United States. Not just from the deaths—which are horrendous and heart wrenching. Not just from those with long-term symptoms from COVID—also horrendous and heart wrenching.

But the other major crisis going on for millions of Americans. From July of 2020 to December of 2020, 8 million U.S. citizens fell into poverty. This is the biggest annual jump in the number of people who have fallen below the poverty line ($26,000 for a family of four) since the U.S. government started keeping records 60 years ago.

Even if the U.S. manages to reconstruct some kind of safety net in 2021, it will not rescue everyone who has lost income, housing, and other essentials. Not for years. Study after study after study shows that it’s harder to lift people out of poverty than it is to prevent them from falling into it in the first place.

While this isn’t a uniquely American problem, it is a weird problem for what was the world’s wealthiest country to have. Other countries, from Japan, parts of Europe, and Canada, managed to put some extra protections around their citizens in the COVID crisis. What the U.S. government has done so far is woefully inadequate, and we’re seeing the results everywhere.

Children raised in poverty and in food-insecure households have more trouble in school. They have developmental issues, often caused by poor nutrition which can have a serious impact on concentration.

Add to that the necessity for virtual learning through much of 2020, and an entire group of children are being left behind. We’re not sure yet who those children are, exactly, because school systems, already overwhelmed with new demands, have not been able to track down the kids who aren’t showing up for online class.

Some of those kids don’t have access to Wi-Fi or computers, something the school districts worked hard to address. Many of those kids have no fixed address, because their parents got evicted before the pandemic’s eviction moratoriums. From 2017 to 2018, 1.5 million kids in the U.S. were homeless, but still managing to attend school. School was the only constant in their lives, only to have it upended as well when the pandemic hit.

To make matters worse, libraries closed. There was literally nowhere to get free Wi-Fi or to plug in a laptop, if the kids even had one.  These kids often get meals at school—the only meals they got during the day. They had someone do a daily welfare check, to make sure they were bathing or not being abused, and all of the other problems that come from unsettled lives and housing.

In Las Vegas, the school district hired extra employees at the start of the school year to go door to door to find students who hadn’t enrolled, whose parents hadn’t seen any of the online instructions for enrollment. But what if there’s no door to knock on? What then?

I’ve been very worried about education and food insecurity and our lack of a strong government response here in the U.S. I’ve donated a large portion of our disposable income to charities this year, especially to local ones giving food to families and another that has found a way to replace the in-school meals for students with a slightly different system.

It’s not enough. And, I’m sure, many of you are wondering why I’m even writing about this for a publishing blog.

I’m writing about it because these kids are our future. Readers are made, not born, and if kids aren’t getting an education, they’re not learning how to read. They’re certainly not learning how to read for enjoyment. And poverty, with all its many ills, is time-consuming. The search for work, shelter, and food makes entertainment—which is what reading is, ultimately—a true and unaffordable luxury.

The good news is that so far, among the kids who have managed to remain in school, reading scores have stayed constant. It’s easier to teach reading virtually than it is to teach math. (Math is tougher to teach because it requires sequential learning. You need to study one thing before you can move to the next. Reading isn’t quite as tricky.)

With the hope being given by the vaccines, school should be able to return to business as usual in the fall of 2021. By then, though, we will have lost hundreds of thousands of college students, kids who were planning to go to college and now might not ever go.

The reasons are myriad. Some kids hate online learning. Others feel it’s not worth the money to attend virtual classes. Still others are now needed to contribute income to a family, rather than cost them money in school.

Once again, these are our readers. They have a great chance of reading for enjoyment, even without college, than the kids who drop out of high school, but they’re still not going to read as much as previous generations…if we do not nip this problem in the bud.

Some of the things I discussed in earlier posts have already helped kids read more. The free downloads from writers and libraries have helped. Some online reading programs have stepped up as well.

But one of the many areas of wreckage we need to clean up is education. We have to figure out a way to recover those students, and quickly.

What can we writers do besides donate money to charities? Keep free fiction as part of our writing plan—not just for people who can afford the Amazon programs, but on our websites and in other places. Donate books and learning opportunities to education fundraisers. Participate in giveaways for schools and teachers.

Those are the obvious ones.

The not-so-obvious ones? Keep writing. Provide the escape. And don’t be surprised if, for the next few years, reading and literacy numbers coming from various studies and surveys decline. With the right focus, we can raise those numbers again, but it will take all of us.

This—the impact on education and reading in particular—is just one of the problems lurking below the wreckage, the things that will become clear as the first layer of rubble gets scraped off.

Another, perhaps more personal, problem lurking below the wreckage is the trauma all of us have experienced from this year. Some of us are experiencing it more than others. The loss of friends and family to the disease, which is a level of communal grief that is astronomical and difficult to absorb. Our healthcare workers worldwide are going through a crisis similar to being on the front of a shooting war for months and months, with no rest, no relief in sight—until the vaccines. And even that means that the crisis will end…in the future. Not now.

I have no idea how many healthcare workers will quit or suffer psychological trauma for years on end. Those numbers are waiting for us on the other end of this crisis.

But even those of us lucky enough (at the moment) to be spared the worst of the crisis are going through a mental and emotional trauma, a deep one. We’ve lost our world. The familiar is gone and what faces us is an uncertain future.

Taking care of our own mental health has been exceptionally difficult in 2020, because most of the usual (and best) solutions are unavailable. A simple hug from a sympathetic friend is impossible. Finding a sympathetic ear is hard too, because everyone is dealing with something difficult, and not everyone has the bandwidth to deal with their own problems along with  someone else’s.

All of that has caused problems in the act of writing itself. Some writers have been unable to write much at all in 2020. A friend of mine, a professional writer since the mid-1960s, complained on Facebook that he’s been unable to write fiction since June—the first time that’s happened in his entire career.

And he’s not alone. All of us have struggled. Some writers have abandoned projects. Others have slogged through, but lost the enjoyment.

I’ve been slogging, because I had a project I wanted to finish. I realized, after I did finish in December, that I had used the slog and the structure it provided to keep me going while a good 60% of my brain was focused on the pandemic and the election.

The election is over (thank God) and the pandemic has an end. My ability to concentrate has grown exponentially since those two things have become apparent. But I’m just now beginning to realize the things I set aside so that I could get work done. And, honestly, the only reason I was able to write through this crisis was because I taught myself how to write even when my chronic illness was at its worst. I learned the value of one clear hour in the middle of a long day. I also learned how to keep my critical voice from beating the crap out of me for not getting as much work done as usual.

I acquired those skills because I was living through a personal crisis, one I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But they did me well in this impersonal/personal crisis, getting me through the days.

Not everyone has that skill.

I wrote early in the pandemic that everyone needed to take care of themselves emotionally and if that meant not writing right now, so be it. Grief is a tough thing, and most of us are grieving—the loss of actual friends and family, the loss of a job or good health, or something as simple as a daily routine.

The loss of an expected future is tough too. Life became easier for me recently when I realized I could see an end to the immediate crisis, knowing that at some point in 2021, we won’t have to worry about more lockdowns or overflowing hospitals.

But we are going to have to take care of ourselves and our families. 2021 and 2022 will be all about assessing the damage of 2020. Right now, all we can see is the top layer of this wreckage. We don’t know yet what lies beneath, and for some of it, we won’t know for a year or more.

With luck, we will be able to save those generations of students, getting them back in school and studying in a more organized environment. With luck, the gains that reading has made among adults in 2020 will trickle down to their children in future years.

The first step to recovery, though, is diagnosing the problem. The only way to diagnose a problem is to see it clearly. Right now, the devastation wrought by COVID is too vast to see clearly—on a macro level anyway.

But on a micro level—oh, hell. Let’s move away from economic terms, shall we? On a personal level, we can assess. We can forgive ourselves for not working as hard as we wanted to in 2020, for not meeting our writing goals or not remaining as emotionally stable as we’ve been in previous years. Even those of us who managed to write a lot might have missed publishing goals or time spent on other important things.

We have to look at 2020 the way that I look at that class logo display on my walks. 2020 is a break point, something different from everything else that came before, and everything that will come after. It’s worldwide trauma and personal trauma wrapped in one thing.

The publishing industry will see some major changes because of this year. I addressed some of those changes in the previous posts. Some will become clearer by this time next year.

But we writers, we emotional creatures who work out of our subconscious, we might be completely different writers now than we were at this time last year. And we have to acknowledge that it’s okay to be different.

Pat yourself on the back for surviving the most difficult year worldwide of the 21st century. Figure out where you’re at emotionally and personally. Please, get help if you need to. It’s okay to ask for emotional support or to go into therapy. It’s okay to rest or to have a months-long cry.

Give money if you can to support the holes that this pandemic has created around you. As you can tell from my opening here, for me, the crisis has made me focus on poverty and education. Dean is giving to animal rescue charities and restaurant workers almost exclusively.

If 2020 has taught me anything, though, it’s the value of kindness. I’ve never lived through a crisis that’s worldwide before and frankly, I don’t want to live through one again. We’re all under some kind of stress and strain. This virus and the economic fallout has caused us all to lose things that matter to us and to our communities.

Some of us react well to crisis. Some don’t. All of us are having bad days. So please add a dose of compassion into your interactions.

We have to acknowledge the toll this virus has taken. We also have to look realistically at our futures. Some of what we lost can’t be rebuilt. Some of it shouldn’t be.

That includes our writing. Some of us abandoned projects in March and are unable to return to those projects. That’s okay. Those projects were designed in the Before Time, and might not apply to Now. Some of us have written nothing. That’s okay too. Writing will return when the brain has room for it.

Some of us have written an incredible amount, but got behind on publishing and marketing. Also okay.

As we move into the new year, look at the toll 2020 has taken on you. Assess where your writing and publishing is, sure, but also assess where you are emotionally and physically. Be honest—and be compassionate.

You’ve just lived through something amazing—in a what-a-fucking-surprise kinda way. That something isn’t over yet, and its aftermath will be with us forever.

Don’t apply 2019 standards to 2021. Those two dates cross a gulf so vast that it seems like two different cultures.

Do what you can for yourself and others. The important part of that previous sentence are the words “what you can.” If you don’t have bandwidth yet to do much, that’s okay. If you still have to help your kids with their virtual learning…on your writing computer…that’s okay. If you’re looking for a job instead of writing, that’s okay.

We will get through this.

The slog is nearly over. But when we do emerge, we will be different.

And that’s okay too.

“Business Musings: The Toll (2020 in Review)p” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / coolhand.

4 thoughts on “Business Musings: The Toll (2020 in Review)

  1. Thanks, Kris. I’m so glad that you and Dean are donating.
    For me, I’m donating to environmental groups. If we don’t have the Earth, we have nothing. All the protective equipment is creating more garbage. Animals and trees can’t vote.
    We already donate to two different eco organizations monthly, but thanks to your column, I decided to donate to the Rainforest Trust. I feel good about helping protect the land. We’re also planting 1800 more trees on our property.
    Good points about feeding and educating the next generation. My kids aren’t enjoying online school too much, but they have a roof over their heads.

  2. Thank you. I’m one of those who have been unable to write. I tried. I forced myself to sit down [almost] every day, but it was like trying to raise water from a dry well. Only in the last week or two has some joy returned to my writing. One of the things that helped was that I put together a marketing plan that covers the next couple of months and gives me a structure to follow. I hate marketing my own books so I’m making them all free, one after the other. That way I can feel as if I’m giving people something rather than badgering them. The benefit to my writing, however, was unexpected and very welcome. I feel as if my writing has a purpose again, that’s it’s not just an exercise in ego.

    Re education: I agree. The kids who have access to the internet are going to be okay, even if their formal learning has been badly disrupted. Reading for pleasure is very different to reading for education. As a teacher, I would happily allow all kids to read nothing but comics for the first six years of their schooling. Let them catch the reading bug first, then show them that reading is the most powerful tool they will ever own.

    The lack of access to the internet via computer is a huge problem, especially for those kids who have fallen below the poverty line. But…I do feel a little hope. Even if those kids don’t have a computer, or some way to connect it to the internet, smart phone use is now almost universal, so they will have access of a sort. Unfortunately, the limitations of smartphones mean they’re not likely to be reading /books/. But words are words, and perhaps those smartphones will provide enough of a lifeline to keep them reading something. Fingers crossed.

  3. I thought you’d appreciate this small bit goodness through the pandemic. Our town is a small town but the school district here was able to keep offering boxed lunches for kids even while closed. During the worst, when everything was shut down, I believe they offered a week’s worth of lunches for anyone who came and picked them up. You could get them for more than one student but the local FB group pointed out that you didn’t have to just be picking up for students. The goal was to minimize hunger.

  4. Wise words, Kris. When it comes to helping students learn, lots of people are stepping up and offering a lot of free content.
    I’d like to give props to my daughter Miranda, who has dedicated her YouTube channel to teaching people what she learned in art school – for free (she gets enough commissions to keep her going.) She does 3 videos a week: a technical tutorial, a live critique of people’s pieces, and an ArtBlock Friday, where she draws live, shows people how she does things, and invites them to draw along while answering questions from her chat stream. She has become a lifeline for so many young people whose families don’t believe in their art, or who can’t afford art school, or who have been to art school and found their learning, and marketing skills, sadly lacking.
    If any writers on here want to have quality art of their characters created for making “swag” on RedBubble and such, contact her. She knows which of her padawan do professional-level work already, and will connect you. You may be that young artist’s first paying commission. Her channel is on YouTube under Hybrid Miranda.

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